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The Earth’s surface, warmed by the Sun, radiates heat into the atmosphere. Some heat is absorbed by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and then radiated to space (A). Some heat makes its way to space directly (B). Some heat is absorbed by greenhouse gases and then radiated back towards the Earth’s surface (C). With more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere later this Century, more heat will be stopped by greenhouse gases, warming the planet.
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Lisa Gardiner / Windows to the Universe

Earth's Greenhouse Effect

Energy from the Sun that makes its way to the Earth’s surface can have trouble finding its way back out to space. This is because of a natural process called the greenhouse effect. Without the greenhouse effect, Earth’s temperature would be below freezing. However, Earth’s greenhouse effect is getting stronger as we add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. And that is warming the climate of our planet.

Heat is radiated into the atmosphere from the Earth’s surface, which is warmed by sunlight. As the heat makes its way back to space, much of it is absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are more complex than most other gas molecules in the atmosphere, with a structure that can absorb heat. They radiate the heat back to the Earth's surface, to another greenhouse gas molecule, or out to space.

Sometimes during this Century, the amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is expected to double. Other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide are increasing as well. The quantity of greenhouse gases is increasing as fossil fuels are burned, releasing the gases and other air pollutants into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases also make their way to the atmosphere from other sources. Farm animals, for example, release methane gas as they digest food. As cement is made from limestone, it releases carbon dioxide.

With more greenhouse gases in the air, heat passing through on its way out of the atmosphere is more likely to be stopped. The added greenhouse gases absorb the heat. They then radiate this heat. Some of the heat will head away from the Earth, some of it will be absorbed by another greenhouse gas molecule, and some of it will wind up back at the planet’s surface again. With more greenhouse gases, heat will stick around, warming the planet.

Last modified February 1, 2010 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA